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O Pioneers

Nebraska, who would have thought such grant things could occur within your borders? Willa Cather, writing in the early 1900’s gives us memories of life on the prairie as it made itself felt upon its earliest settlers.

And indeed, it is about the land, which takes center stage, and apparently was what Cather intended. One can examine the book through the lens of how each of the major characters related to the land, how it was a villan to be beaten by some, a pasty to be cheated by others, a lover to be passionately embraced by another. It was as wilderness always is, all things to all people.

Many other themes of course play out in the novel, themes of friendship, love, passion, morality, sacrifice, and others. We are uniquely aware of Cather’s opinions on all these matters as the pages turn.

What is hardest for the 21st century reader to absorb is the rather Victorian approach to passionate love. Cather leaves no doubt that she finds marriage based on friendship, safer and more realistic than that based on the deeper emotion of true sexual desire.

This is the only way to explain her rather strange treatment of the brief affair of Emil and Marie. Marie has given into passion and married a man most unright for her, and she for him. They are both unhappy, and Frank, Marie’s husband, possesses none of the traits necessary to examine his own failings as a husband, and thus any chance of improvement is non-existent.

Emil, has loved Marie from afar and for a very long time. He has spent years avoiding her, and trying to accept things as they were.

They, in an unplanned moment, give in to their passion, in the beauty of the orchard. They are unfortunately discovered by Frank, armed and seeking his wife, for he suspects her of misdeeds. Upon discovering the two, sleeping in the sunlight, he shoots them both, without any confrontation.

Alexandra, Emil’s sister, and the major character of the novel, reacts oddly, by our standards. While she grieves long and hard for her favorite sibling, she holds no animosity for Frank. After all, Frank is merely acting as one would expect him to. Marie is the one she holds most responsible, her best friend, who has broken her vows and succumbed to temptation.

Today, we would feel great sympathy for the lovers, one trapped in a loveless marriage to an unpleasant and unfeeling man, the other, a young man who has done everything to avoid the affair. We would sympathize with their moment of weakness. We might not condemn Frank, but we would surely see that alcohol and guns were choices he made, and figure he got his just desserts.

Cather, on the other hand, tells us that passions are dangerous, and marriage should be rational, based on friendship, and long developed commonality of interests. She felt that passion has no place in the sometimes brutal life of pioneers. Who can say that she is wrong.

I guess I wonder, in today’s modern world, what takes the place of land for us? Cather obviously believed that the land was the unifying thing that life revolved around. One worked with it, and with love, and success and more importantly happiness ensued. To those who fought it, tried to destroy it, or tried to steal from it, no good would come about.

Our careers may be our 21st century unifier. If you substitute career, it works as well as land. Certainly some would say money, but frankly I think that we mistake money as a “thing” and loving it, working with it, hardly seem to lead to happiness and success. Cather is certainly onto something that the most satisfied people are those who love what they do for a living.

Perhaps, being true to ourselves, is the lesson here. Cather, of course doesn’t speak to that, but there are tinges of it throughout. Alexandra is true to herself, in her real love of the land and her willingness to experiment, learn, and improve. She is the land and it is her. Carl, her friend and to be husband clearly struggles to find “himself” and cannot be with Alexandra until he does. Emil, although heir to much of Alexandra’s accomplishments, knows that that life is not for him.

Those who have given up being themselves, are her other brothers, who hate every minute of their lives on the land, and Frank, Marie’s husband, who also despises the work and only wants reward and to live a dandy’s life.

We are reminded that these people were the adventurers among us, those who lit out of the cities and their relative safety for the wilds of the unknown. That some made mistakes, and returned beaten, that others stayed stubbornly and were beaten, and that some gloriously succeeded, is but another patch in the great quilt work of America.

Willa Cather provides a wonderful snapshot of one place and time. Well worth the read.

You can read it online for free here.

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